Ladysmith Black Mambazo took to the Oxford New Theatre stage before an audience who knew what they were getting. After forty seven years as a group, where they’ve had the chance to enjoy genuine global fame, it has been a long time since they were an unknown quantity. That the crowd departed so uplifted is made all the more impressive by this lack of the element of surprise.
Ladysmith’s recordings are consistently enjoyable, but after talking to founding member Albert Mazibuko it was clear that live performance was by some distance more important to them. This is apparent when attending a gig of theirs. I can’t remember seeing a group have so much fun on stage. Those voices: gorgeous, enthralling harmonies were the order of the day and the group didn’t falter once in the delivery. Ladysmith spend a huge amount of time in practice, and it shows. Despite large amounts of improvisation, and a very loose style, there was not one noticeable gaffe. Working their way through several cuts off their new album Songs from a Zulu Farm to begin with (which involved a higher frequency of animal impressions than this reviewer is usually comfortable with, though they made it work), they began to weave in older material like ‘Unomathemba’. A notable highlight was an electric rendition of ‘Homeless’, leaving many around me in tears.
Band leader Joseph Shabalala, now nearing seventy but with the energy of a man half his age, marshals affairs with a confidence borne of extreme familiarity. On the few songs where he was absent, his role was taken with panache by his son, and Ladysmith’s dauphin, Thamsanqa, who had more than a few in the crowd swooning. On this evidence the group’s future is in safe hands. Each of the other members had several moments in the limelight, and the friendly jostling for lone dance time was one of the more memorable features of the show, with much manhandling between Shabalala’s sons.
This was a hugely enjoyable show. Having identified their mission as the spreading of joy, the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo needed only to look at the beaming faces as they finished their finale of ‘Shosholoza’ (for a brief minute it looked like they intended to finish with a fun but ephemeral cover of ‘Old Macdonald had a Farm’, which would have been mischievous to say the least) to know that in Oxford at least it was mission accomplished.